Muchova upsets Barty, will face Brady in Australian semis

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Top-ranked Ash Barty built a big lead in the Australian Open quarterfinals before her opponent took a medical timeout and left the court.

More than an hour later, it was Barty heading abruptly for the exit, upset 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 Wednesday by 25th-seeded Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.

Muchova earned her first semifinal berth at a Grand Slam tournament and ended Barty’s bid to become the first Australian woman to win the title at home since Chris O’Neil in 1978.

“It’s heartbreaking, of course,” said Barty, who took nearly all of last year off because of the coronavirus pandemic, including opting not to try to defend her 2019 French Open title. “But the sun will come up tomorrow. You’re either winning or you’re learning, and today is a massive learning curve for me.”

No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal built a big lead in a night-time quarterfinal, but his bid for a men’s-record 21st Grand Slam title ended with an upset five-set loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.

It is only the second time in Nadal’s career he has lost a Grand Slam match after taking the opening two

Now the 22-year-old, fifth-seeded Tsitsipas will try to reach his first major final by beating Daniil Medvedev on Friday.

The women’s semifinals Thursday will be the first matches at Melbourne Park with crowds in nearly a week after the easing of restrictions imposed by the Victoria state government during a five-day lockdown in Australia’s second-largest city to contain the spread of a COVID-19 cluster.

Tournament director Craig Tiley said Wednesday that attendance will be capped at 7,477 – about half the capacity of Rod Laver Arena – for each of the last four days of the tournament.

Muchova’s opponent will be 22nd-seeded Jennifer Brady, who beat fellow American and good friend Jessica Pegula 4-6, 6-2, 6-1. Brady reached her second Grand Slam semifinal, following a run that far at the U.S. Open in September.

“I hope I make it a habit,” Brady said. “Hopefully I have a new habit of making finals.”

She struggled at times and gave her racket an angry toss midway through the second set. But the unseeded Pegula, who advanced beyond the third round at a major for the first time, appeared to tire down the stretch.

“We’re such good friends,” Brady said. “I’m really happy for her success. I know we’ll be having a lot more tough battles.”

Medvedev beat Andrey Rublev, his friend and teammate on Russia’s ATP Cup-winning squad, by a 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 score and will take a 19-match winning streak into the semifinals.

“It’s never easy,” Medvedev said about playing a pal. “But, I mean, we’re all so competitive. During the match, you can see nothing matters. Just need to win.”

The No. 4-seeded Medvedev hasn’t dropped a set to No. 7-seeded Rublev in four tour-level matches. That includes their meeting in the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year.

Medvedev called for the trainer after the match to massage his left thigh as he sat in a courtside chair before a TV interview.

“I started cramping. I knew he was cramping, also,” Medvedev said. “At the end, I locked completely.”

Medvedev is into the semifinals of a major for the third time and is one of two Russians into the semifinals at Melbourne Park. He joins 114th-ranked Aslan Karatsev, a qualifier in the main draw of a major for the first time, who plays top-ranked Novak Djokovic for a spot in the final.

Muchova played poorly at the start of her second major quarterfinal, and Barty raced to a 5-0 lead while losing only six points. After nine games, Muchova had one winner and 18 unforced errors.

Early in the second set, she took a medical timeout that lasted nearly 10 minutes, which players are allowed to do if it’s determined they’re having a problem that goes beyond cramps.

Sunny weather, with the temperature in the mid-80s (30 degrees Celsius), was a factor, Muchova said.

“I think it was a bit of the heat,” she said. “It got to me, and I was feeling kind of dizzy, really lost and almost fainting. I just asked for help.”

Medical personnel took her temperature, checked her blood pressure and gave her ice before she left the court. When Muchova returned, she played much better.

“I tried to play a bit faster rallies so we don’t play long ones as in the first set,” she said, “and it worked well.”

Barty had no complaints about Muchova halting play.

“It’s within the rules,” Barty said. “She’s within her rights to take that time. That shouldn’t be a massive turning point in the match. I’m disappointed I let that be a turning point.”

Comebacks have been a staple in the tournament for Muchova, who rallied in earlier matches to win sets after trailing 5-0 and 4-0.

Against Barty, she began moving into the court to hit her groundstrokes earlier. Barty, pushed behind the baseline, became indecisive and erratic.

During one stretch, Muchova won eight of nine games. Barty finished with 37 unforced errors and lost serve four times in the final two sets.

“I just overplayed,” Barty said. “I just pressed a little bit too much, and gave up too many cheap errors at some pretty critical times.”

Brady was in a two-week hard lockdown before the Australian Open because she was among the players who shared a charter flight to Australia with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

The tradeoff for that initially was some freedom of movement in Australia.

Crowds of up to 30,000 a day, roughly 50% of what’s normally seen at the tournament, were allowed into Melbourne Park – although the daily attendance never topped 22,500 – before the lockdown was imposed.

This was the first Grand Slam tournament since last year’s Australian Open to permit thousands of people to sit in the stands.

Wimbledon was canceled, the U.S. Open barred fans entirely, and the French Open let about 1,000 spectators per day.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.